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Hardboiled on video

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Hardboiled
cast: Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung, Teresa Mo, Philip Chan, and Anthony Wong

director: John Woo

122 minutes (18) 1992
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary
This superb drama from acclaimed director John Woo stars Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat, a regular collaborator of premier action stylist Woo. It is an exceptional production, even by the astonishingly high standards of the men who bought us A Better Tomorrow (1986), its immediate sequel A Better Tomorrow Part 2, and the previous highpoint of John Woo's career - that incredible bullet-fest, The Killer.

Hardboiled (aka: Lashou shentan) was the most expensive movie made in Hong Kong at that time. It scales the heights of the oriental 'heroic bloodshed' aesthetic, and is nothing less than the ultimate police and gangster thriller. (Yes, I know that's an extraordinary claim, but I'm happy to explain why it's true...) Featuring a series of lengthy gun-battles, each one more brutally violent than the last, Hardboiled redefines the whole action-thriller movie genre in its first 20 minutes, while its final half hour can boast arguably the most exhilarating sequences ever devised for the screen. Yet mercifully, lest it all be viewed as a graphic parody, this film's veritable orgy of electrifying shootouts are quite fittingly tempered with a keen sense of ironic humour.

You can safely forget about Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and their like. As Sergeant (sometimes Inspector) 'Tequila' Yuen, gifted actor Chow Yun-fat effortlessly eclipses them all. The charismatic, resolute 'action hero' persona that he presents here is more along the lines of an eastern version of a young Clint Eastwood, than any of the muscle-bound bruisers cast as typical Hollywood champions. Chow's compelling central performance is well supported by a cast of memorable co-stars, including Tony Leung and Philip Chan, who, unlike many American action-movie players, never let character become secondary to the stunt-work. All the roles have considerable depth, and the main protagonists credibly (or creditably at least, for - in truth, Hardboiled is really a 'fantasy' movie) instigate the always-dramatic conflicts, instead of frantically trying only to justify them - something that Arnie & Co attempt with a monotonous regularity. The stars of Hardboiled are screen idols deserving of your admiration.

This film shares many plot elements with John Woo's earlier The Killer. These include the second half of the film becoming a mismatched buddy-movie, and the poignant manner in which both scenarios suggest that perhaps the hero and the villain are actually flip-sides of the same coin. But Hardboiled sees Chow totally reversing the role-playing of The Killer (in which he portrayed a master assassin). Here, he's the tough detective pursuing the hitman, Alan (Tony Leung), while the plot of Hardboiled is further complicated by the unexpected discovery that the hero's enemy is also a policeman - working undercover to infiltrate a triad's major gun-smuggling operation. Soon, tragic events take a most horrifying turn for the worst when the troubled Alan is coerced into committing a murder, in order to prove himself and gain acceptance amongst the rival, homicidal-hoodlum, triad factions. (This offbeat twist would later form the central intrigue of crime drama Infernal Affairs.) Later, Alan seems to revel in the gratuitous slaughter, until a police informant endangers his life. Backed into a corner, he then forms an alliance with Tequila to bring down their vicious adversary Johnny (Anthony Wong), the crime lord responsible for the deaths of several top police officers. Contrasted with this triad leader is the ruthlessly efficient thug Mad Dog (Philip Kwok), an eye-patch wearing mercenary type who proves to be a killer with 'honour', and so ultimately he seems a more worthy opponent for our heroes than his psychopathic yuppie boss.

Revenge, betrayal, and obsession are some of the motivations for the film's assassination plots, quite staggeringly intense retaliations, and explosive urban warfare set pieces. The pitched battle at the climax of Hardboiled (with its daring act of putting a whole maternity ward full of babies at risk, one of which is splattered with blood) makes the despicably over-hyped Terminator 2: Judgment Day resemble the numbingly slow British soap Coronation Street. And, following our two heroes' stunningly mounted breakout from the gangsters' secret basement arsenal (hidden beneath a mortuary), during the siege and subsequent clumsy evacuation of a busy medical centre (ground level scenes that are quite brilliantly staged with documentary realism using handheld cameras), there is an astounding 20-minute, single take. Comprising snappy dialogue and untold gunfights, punctuated by the eerie calm of gruesome death scenes - this details the stalking of baddies around a maze of hospital corridors, and the pivotal sequence of Alan shooting a policeman. It's here that Woo tops even the epic bloodbath that closed The Killer and yet this is no small feat at all; it's something which I was quite sure simply couldn't be done... but that was in the past.

However, this film's elaborately staged savagery isn't mere Peckinpah patented vehemence or Walter Hill styled cowboy cliché. It is genuinely, lyrically magnificent. The acrobatic stunt-work truly does have all the sophistication and elegance of ballet. Waltzing with handguns, Hardboiled delivers a kind of eulogy for armed combat; a carnival dance of death to the very end. The mixing of slow motion and real-time footage in many superbly choreographed and edited gunfight scenes (all done with the impressive split-second timing that's now a practiced visual signature of Woo's oeuvre) might well be interpreted as a glorification of cinematic violence. (Yet, at the time this was made, Woo paradoxically claimed he doesn't shoot, had never fired a gun at all, and he couldn't even drive!) Thankfully, Woo refuses to shirk his social responsibilities in showing us the effects of violence on both victims and perpetrators, with depictions, not just of physical wounds, but mental ones too.

Intelligently, Tequila and Alan have each adopted a creative outlet for the burdens of grief; while one accumulates the origami birds that he hates making, the other is fated to write the mournful tunes for every cop's funeral. As if all this content isn't enough. Woo has also generated a pervasive mood of mythic resonance to the conflicts, shading the fatal actions of Hardboiled's heroic archetypes with a dimension of virtually poetic grandeur. Woo's intent may be to polish up a dark-side to the bygone era of a soldier's chivalry. The themes of his films relate to the nature of valour, and so Hardboiled takes action cinema into the realm of existential opera. The episodic structure of this unique film works because it forges a saga out of the seemingly ageless genre of 'a warrior's story'.

One aspect of Hardboiled that may surprise some is its measure of terse humour, though I hasten to add that witty remarks come in the form of idiosyncratic, Chinese gags and certainly not the empty wisecracks of many American screen heroes' nonsensical one-liners. The most absurdly amusing scene in Hardboiled occurs during the escape from a firebombed hospital, and features a baby who urinates down Tequila's leg to douse the flames on his trousers! Such is the effect of gallows humour on even the most grossly shocking scene, that despite its excesses, desensitisation to violence is never really an issue here.

Almost casually, Woo refines far more substance from this action scenario than simply 'Die Hard in a hospital' - as probably any American director would have shaped it. And yet the allegorical subtexts are so cunningly disguised that you are unlikely to even notice them on first viewing. John Woo's occasional pretensions and typically audacious use of Christian iconography, can be forgiven as such graces and affectations are artfully masked by surface textures and his insistence upon infusing everything with a remarkable and wholly admirable style (must confess, I didn't catch the low-key symbolism of Alan's murder in the library until second time around).

If you haven't already seen this, I urge you to buy this provocative masterpiece on DVD. It's more than simply a milestone of the genre; Hardboiled redefines the very ingredients that regularly makeup modern action cinema. Certainly, I think, the over-praised Lethal Weapon and Die Hard trilogies would appear as wimpy sideshows if stacked against the ballistic mayhem and sheer bravura of Hardboiled - and so this epic requires your attention on those terms alone.

This collector's edition DVD is digitally re-mastered from a low-contrast 35mm print, and presented in dazzling anamorphic widescreen with dual Cantonese and English soundtracks in Dolby digital 5.1 or DTS options, plus newly created English subtitles. There are no disc extras but this special Tartan re-release promises - and happily delivers - supremely high quality picture and sound, comparable to those recent 'Super-Bit' DVD offerings.
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